Five Considerations for Companies Setting up Digital Ethics Advisory Boards

June 21, 2021
  • Hannah Darnton portrait

    Hannah Darnton

    Director, Technology and Human Rights, BSR

  • Lale Tekişalp portrait

    Lale Tekişalp

    Associate Director, Technology Sectors, BSR

How can artificial intelligence (AI) expediate research and drug discovery without leaving out key demographics? What are the potentially negative impacts of new technology that helps individuals match makeup to their skin tone or that helps forecast demand for the newest clothing line? Does the use of AI systems for employee recruitment and hiring bring more harm than benefit?

As digital transformation accelerates, companies are questioning how to maximize the benefits and address the risks of innovation.

A well-established governance mechanism can help them manage ethical challenges that arise with the use of digital technologies.

What Does Digital Ethics Governance Look Like?

BSR works with companies across industries to surface best practices on the governance of digital ethics. Typically, following the creation of guiding principles and standards, companies build governance structures that guide decision-making and oversee the implementation of principles into practice.

The creation of such governance structures often includes establishing expert working groups, or advisory boards, to advise on these new and emerging topics. These boards can take the shape of an internal committee, an external advisory panel, or a hybrid structure that includes employees (team leads and internal experts) as well as subject matter experts from outside the company. They are often intended to bring in diverse perspectives and create the space for debate and informed decision-making.

Examples include Microsoft’s Aether Committee, Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, and Merck KGaA’s Digital Ethics Board. Although not directly focused on digital ethics, the Novartis Independent Bioethics Advisory Board and the Recruit Holdings Sustainability Committee also offer best practices on how companies can feed external guidance and insights into company processes.

Five Considerations for Establishing Digital Ethics Advisory Boards

There are five considerations for companies setting up advisory boards for digital ethics. These high-level considerations apply to all kinds of advisory boards; however, they are particularly relevant for the new and evolving field of digital ethics.

1. Decide whether an internal, external, or hybrid board will be most effective. 

This decision will depend on the specific needs of the company. An external board increases the range of perspectives and the credibility of company decisions and actions, while internal representation can help strengthen buy-in and the integration of issues across teams. Some companies have built hybrid boards, where a set group of internal participants are accompanied by external experts as needed.

Companies with less internal expertise on these issues may also choose to consult with independent bodies, such as The World Federation of Advertisers' (WFA) Data Ethics Board and the AI Research Review Committee by the Future of Privacy Forum.

2. Include diverse voices on the board. 

Boards facilitate engagement with external stakeholders. Companies should pay special attention to including the voices of vulnerable populations that may be affected through the company’s use of technology. For digital ethics boards specifically, it is also important to have the right level of technical, social, and industry expertise.

However, companies must also strike the right size; a board that is too big can be unwieldy. Instead of striving to create a board that includes all backgrounds, companies can create a structure that allows for flexibility to bring in external experts and stakeholders as needed. For example, Twitter has formed smaller Advisory Groups under its Trust and Safety Council to enable a more nimble engagement process with external experts.

3. Create an environment that allows different rightsholders to participate. 

An important factor to consider here is compensation. Compensating external members of the board allows for the participation of individuals, particularly those from underrepresented populations, who might not otherwise be able to do so. In our experience, we have not seen that compensating members of a board leads to conflict of interest or reduces the quality of outcomes.

4. Establish a team responsible for facilitating engagement with the board.

One of the most helpful “process” steps is establishing an internal lead, or working group, to manage the relationship with the board and assist with the dissemination and implementation of the board’s guidance. The working group can help solicit, manage, and coordinate with teams across the company who surface technology use cases for review or who would like to engage with the board on specific questions and topics.

5. Complement top-down governance structures with bottom-up approaches. 

Advisory boards can be immensely helpful in the management of digital ethics at a company. However, raising internal awareness around these systems and integrating them across the organization is equally important.

Ultimately, many of the decisions concerning digital ethics are made by engineers, product teams, or sales teams on the frontlines of technology development and deployment. Companies should make sure that all teams understand how the guiding principles translate to their day-to-day jobs, and there should be a clear process for employees to surface digital ethics challenges up to the advisory board.

Creative examples we have seen include H&M’s Ethical AI Debate Club that helps make AI ethics top of mind for employees, and Microsoft’s AI Champs program, where Responsible AI Champs throughout the company help roll out Microsoft’s AI Principles and train their teams to recognize and raise ethical challenges.

Maximizing the opportunities and addressing the risks of digital technology innovation requires companies to proactively set up structures and processes that can help address ethical challenges and dilemmas as they emerge. Well-established governance mechanisms can help companies identify and tackle risks early on and focus on the positive impacts the technology offers. 

To further discuss operationalizing digital ethics principles and processes, get in touch with us.

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